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Looking after our medics in a time of crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious challenge. Our medics are trained and ready to provide real help, real fast in the event of a nationwide outbreak, but it takes a toll. This is how we take care of our medics’ psychological well-being.

ER24 paramedics are well-accustomed to dealing with crises. As first responders frequently tasked with managing scenes of disaster, be it multi-vehicle pile-ups or catastrophic mudslides, they have to be. But that does not mean they are bullet-proof.

Medics are challenged by trauma like anyone else, says Adriaan Grobler, the national coordinator of ER24’s trauma counselling service. He would know: he and his team of counsellors work round the clock to ensure medics on the road have a safe space in which to debrief and process what they see.

“The ER24 paramedic comes from a very reputable training academy; these are handpicked people,” he explains. “They are well-prepared to be emotionally challenged.”

Support for first responders has long been a challenge in the emergency medicine industry. “In the old days, what did we have? We said this work is what it is. Cowboys don’t cry – deal with it. We had no concept of where to start training to manage your own mental health.”

Today, this picture is very different. “This was one of the reasons ER24’s trauma support service was established – to be more present for medics who needed help. In 2010, the company employed and deployed trauma counsellors in every province.”

Grobler explains that the department has a few primary goals: to decrease anxiety in the aftermath of a traumatic event, to teach crisis management techniques that help staff members and the public, and to assist in learning valuable lessons from the triggering event.

Because trauma affects people in different ways, learning to cope with it is an ongoing process of learning and personal growth. “You must remember, trauma is an experience that threatens someone’s health or life, or that of someone close to that person. It can overwhelm whatever normal, or usual, coping mechanism that person may have in place. We could be talking about a divorce, or a pet passing away; witnessing an accident victim in intense pain. That is trauma.”

COVID-19 presents a uniquely traumatic challenge. Medics face constant uncertainty and anxiety as they work to manage an increased patient load while trying to reduce the spread of transmission and prevent becoming infected themselves – or infecting their families.

“When this pandemic became part of our lives, it changed the dynamic of how our staff go about their business. Now they are more aware of their mental health, and how they react emotionally to new stressors, like fatigue and fear.”

Caring for yourself is an extra, silent responsibility that many paramedics have never faced before. ER24’s trauma counselling department is equipped and ready to offer them the support and care they need during this difficult time.

“Our medics are people who need to face the heat of immensely emotional and even hysterical events, with a sense of humanity and humility. They need to bear the brunt of that with pride. What does it take? It takes positivity, and a high level of energy – and it takes vigilance.”

Medics are often hard on themselves, expecting to meet unrealistic standards. “To manage yourself personally, in terms of your mental health, is not an easy thing. It’s important that the guys attend to the concerns inside them, and you have to realise you have to heal however you can. Every situation is unique. There is no one size fits all. You need to find peace.”

How? Talking to someone has great value. “We have an anonymous support line specifically for staff, and our branch managers encourage their teams to speak up. We often lose sight of our own lives. We may have seen patients as they suffered through trauma, where some of them were in a lot of pain; some of them were fighting for their lives. This can be difficult to process. And those are the things you need to communicate. That’s part of your life story. And you need to tell that.”

ER24’s trauma counselling service includes:

  • Telephonic counselling with Nurse Case Management team or Trauma Counsellors
  • Face-to-face trauma counselling with our specialist Trauma Counselling team
  • Critical incident management and emotional support
  • Referral to a specialist network of psychologists and psychiatrists if required